Roughly a year ago, I managed to finish playing Chrono Cross, the interesting but messy sequel to Chrono Trigger. While I have plenty of issues with CC, one of the more glaring problems I noted with the game was its bloated cast. Yet, looking back on my criticisms of CC made me question why I had this specific problem, compared to other games with many characters, such as Suikoden or Fire Emblem. It turns out that this problem is more multifaceted than it initially seems.
I want to discuss Chrono Cross’s cast specifically. The various party members you can recruit in Chrono Cross fall under three specific categories: a) are heavily involved in the story (Harle, Viper, Karsh, Zoah, Marcy), b) are involved in the story only during specific points (Guile, Nikki, Korcha, Irenes, Sneff), and finally have little to no direct involvement with the story at all (Poshul, Draggy, Starky, Skelly). To give specific examples, you encounter gruff guy Karsh and his band of goons early on as an antagonistic force, but they end up teaming up with protagonist Serge later when story points shift. Meanwhile, German mermaid Irenes is only directly involved in a specific story point involving the help of a certain pirate, while the undead clown Skelly is linked to an optional sidequest. Chrono Cross has an interesting plot conceit by way of jumping between two different versions of the same world, but the bloated cast (and some of the game’s bizarrely confusing/cryptic writing) takes focus off the more relevant characters.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy some of the harrowing sidequests involving the game’s cast, such as Skelly’s adventures in recovering his body parts and eventually reuniting with his grandmother. But at the end of the game, I cared far more for the cast members who were more plot relevant and when the game does not have the time or resources to fully espouse the intricacies of each character, I can’t help but feel cheated.
In contrast to Chrono Cross, the Suikoden series somehow manages to handle a bigger cast with more finesse. I’ve only played the first two Suikoden games for the PS1, but the general conceit of the Suikoden games is recruiting 108 ‘stars of destiny’ to fight alongside the protagonist in a war. Of course, you don’t have to recruit all 108 individuals to complete the game but doing so is encouraged and rewarded. For example, recruiting all 108 stars in the first Suikoden will result in a certain dead party member being resurrected in time for the last big battle. In Suikoden II, recruiting every star can change the game’s ending, which is dependent on your final encounter with your rival.
Now, in a game with 108 characters, obviously not everyone gets fleshed out. Like Chrono Cross, there’s a fine line between characters who actually get moderate to heavy story involvement, and the many, many characters who are relatively one-dimensional and exist to fill a space, like the mythical unicorn Siegfried or the sentai-themed flying squirrel Mukumuku. So why is it that having such a huge cast in Suikoden doesn’t bother me? My answer for that is context.
The Suikoden games are about war, and gradually building up an army to fight off an opposing side. In contrast, Chrono Cross is more of a game about intrigue, and discovering secrets while traveling between dimensions. In other words, Chrono Cross doesn’t need a large cast, since the conceit of the game is not about gathering an army to fight a great evil, but instead exploring the world(s) with your allies to uncover the source of evil.
I also want to discuss the Fire Emblem games, and how they relate to the cast-size issues. I’ve only played a few FE games (namely the more ‘beginner-friendly’ games starting with Awakening onwards) but the general conceit of Fire Emblem is army-building, so having a sizeable cast is necessary. Since FE games also put emphasis on strategical prowess with consequences of permadeath, having many characters to work with is essential. Nonetheless, FE games also have some of the previously-stated issues with the size of its game cast.
One big problem is simply which units you end up using in a given FE game. Typically, unless you enjoy excessive grinding, FE games don’t encourage you to min-max every unit. Instead, you’re encouraged to pick a subset of characters to use regularly, leaving around 5-10 extra characters who can be subbed in if someone dies off. However, if you’re playing through with casual mode (or you’re exceptionally good at keeping units alive) you may not end up using those extra characters at all. While this might seem like a minor loss, it does mean that things like character supports (the ally-interactions skits which unearth character depth and development) can be overlooked unless you choose to replay the game with a different army.
Oddly, FE does have a subversion to the ‘big cast’ problem by way of Fire Emblem Echoes. Echoes, a remake of the SNES title Fire Emblem Gaiden, allows players to control two different armies over the course of the game. As a result, there is more opportunity to use multiple characters in a single playthrough compared to other games. Of course, Echoes still has minor issues such as making you pick between a certain Character A or Character B to permanently join your army at a certain point, but Echoes handles the issue of a big cast more smoothly than I could imagine.
Having a big cast of playable characters in a game has its time and place, but when it’s handled poorly, it can bring down an already rough experience. Context and mechanics need to be at the forefront before spitting out a huge cast of potentially underdeveloped characters.